Power in the time of Covid: How criminal gangs have strengthened their hand during pandemic

Organised criminals exploiting power vacuums at the heart of government to establish control

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - DECEMBER 03:  A view of the recently "pacified" Santa Marta, one of Rio's oldest slums, or favela on December 3, 2009 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Santa Marta is one of a number of Favelas in Rio where the police are attempting a softer touch by participating in community policing after they clear the area of drug gangs. It is believed that the police want to continue with these programs citywide ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games. As Brazil prepares to host the 2016 Summer Olympics international scrutiny is falling on Rio de Janeiro`s favelas where over 5,000 people were murdered  last year alone. In the last week violence in tourist areas has increased as drug gangs are increasingly reacting to an increased police presence in the favelas. In figures released Tuesday by the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística) statistics agency it was found that an average of 68 young Brazilian men died violently each day between 1998 and 2008. These numbers included murder, traffic accidents and gang violence involving the police.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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For the highly organised Red Command drug-smuggling gang that controls the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the coronavirus pandemic provided a golden opportunity to tighten its grip over the population.

In the city's slums, gang leaders took self-appointed roles as lockdown enforcers and social providers after the chaotic response of President Jair Bolsonaro to the pandemic that led to more than 500,000 deaths from the virus in one of the world's worst-affected countries.

Banners were put up in the favelas telling people to obey curfews. Major social events organised by the gangs to secure support were cancelled. Stepping into the breach exposed by the failure of the state is just one example of how the underworld has profited from the pandemic and expanded it reach as result of the public health crisis.

The pandemic highlighted the power that these groups have and how vulnerable the communities are to the whims of the local commanders
Antonio Sampaio

As Covid-19 lockdowns start to ease, the authorities are warning on the growth of black markets and lucrative new business lines for organised crime.

The European policing agency Europol has warned of substantial operations connected to “fake news, conspiracy theories and harmful narratives” to undermine public institutions and make money.

Criminal gangs are offering fake Covid vaccines and products on the black market with fraudulent health benefits – swiftly buying up online domain names linked to coronavirus to ensure a ready supply of customers.

“As usual, cybercriminals were particularly quick to adapt to the Covid-19 crisis, leveraging the current events and news in order to increase the likelihood of infecting victims looking for related information online,” Europol said. “They have exploited individuals’ increased anxiety, demand for information and supply for certain goods.”

In its own backyard, Brazil's Red Command – a comparatively disciplined but confrontational gang that rode the rising wave of cocaine consumption from the 1990s – used social media and community radio in the favelas to spread its message of social control. With gang members living in the communities they controlled, they were in a better position than the largely distant government to know what troubled residents.

The message from the criminals was clear: if the government is not going to do anything, we will act instead as public health guardians, said Antonio Sampaio who is researching the effects of the pandemic in five cities in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, South Africa and Kenya.

“Rather than acting as repressive overlords, they have a connection with the population and they responded to the demands of the community,” said Mr Sampaio, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

“There has not been a change in the nature of their criminal operations. What happened was an exploitation of opportunities because there were fewer police operations and less government resources to tackle these things.”

Mr Sampaio told of how criminals in Cape Town started a lucrative bootleg tobacco and alcohol racket after the South African government imposed a temporary ban on their sale to ease pressure on the health system and stop the spread of the disease.

One message on Twitter purporting to be from the group said: “Stay at home people, this stuff is getting serious and there are people who think this is a joke.

“Now you are going to stay at home one way or the other. Curfew every day from 8pm, those who will be caught in the streets will learn how to respect others … if the government is not able to come up with a solution, organised crime will.”

When public appetite for restrictions on normal life waned, the gangs also dropped their demands – a clear demonstration that their motivation was based on public opinion rather than medical science.

But by supplying loans to businesses hit hard by the pandemic, the Red Command had put in place agreements for reciprocal aid if they ever needed to hide weapons or front companies to sell drugs, Mr Sampaio said.

“The pandemic highlighted the power that these groups have and how vulnerable the communities are to the whims of the local commanders,” he said.

Gangs sought quick gains during the pandemic, taking advantage of limited police attention by placing concrete roadblocks to take control of territory outside of their traditional powerbase.

Police in Brazil have hit back against the apparent growing influence of the gangs – 28 people were killed in a major police operation at a favela controlled by Red Command in May.

But researchers said that criminals also had their eye on long-term gains from the pandemic.

Tuesday Reitano, co-author of Criminal Contagion: How Mafias, Gangsters and Scammers Profit from a Pandemic said the long-term economic effects of Covid-19 was likely to prove profitable for gangs.

She reported anecdotes of members of the Italian mafia hanging around outside banks awaiting customers who failed to secure loans to offer them informal money-lending services.

Economic crisis has also contributed to increased drug use. About 275 million people used drugs worldwide in the last year – up 22 per cent from 2010 – because of the unprecedented upheaval caused by Covid-19, said the UN’s World Drug Report published this week.

The drug-smuggling industry was in a position to supply the market. Traffickers were only temporarily affected during the first phase of the pandemic and recovered quickly with tweaks to operations, shifting larger loads to private planes and postal services because of travel restrictions.

The use of cybercurrencies and dark market sales provided additional cover for criminal gangs seeking to operate in the shadows amid widespread restrictions on movement.

The report highlighted how gains in tackling drug production could be reversed because of the parlous financial situation faced by farmers in Latin America. The area of coca bush cultivation was reduced worldwide by 5 per cent in 2019, largely driven by cuts in Colombia, the world’s largest source of cocaine.

“However, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting socioeconomic fallout may increase the vulnerabilities of farmers and create incentives to continue producing coca leaf,” the report said.

Red Command is just one of thousands of criminal gangs around the world seeking to exploit the pandemic as power leaks from the governments and health organisations.

Making money from the pandemic is not limited to power-brokers from the criminal world. Key movers in the anti-vaxxer movement – also driving home a message at odds with the medical consensus – make millions of dollars from their activities, a report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate said.

Its Pandemic Profiteers report said organisations linked to leading anti-vaccine campaigners had annual revenues of at least $36 million based on donations, deals with alternative health providers and speaker fees.